A small group of farms in California use more water than entire cities, and it's mostly going to a single crop, a new report finds

A small group of farms in California use more water than entire cities, and it's mostly going to a single crop, a new report finds
An aerial photo taken of the Colorado river.
The Colorado River flows into Lake Mead.George Rose/Contributor/Getty Images
  • An investigation from ProPublica and The Desert Sun focused on farmers' water use in California.

  • They found that 20 farming families used a majority share of one region's water.

  • Those families used the water mainly to grow hay to feed livestock, the investigation found.

The Southwest United States is slowly losing access to its foremost source of water — the Colorado River, which provides more than 40 million people across seven states access to water for drinking, irrigation, hydropower, and more.

Warmer temperatures due to the human-driven climate crisis have reduced the river's flow by more than 10% from 2000 to 2021, a study from the University of California found.

Other researchers have estimated that if greenhouse-gas emissions are not quickly curbed, there won't be enough snow to melt and contribute to the river, which could lead to the flow dropping more than 20% by 2050.

As the Colorado River dries up, scrutiny about its use has increased. This has left governments, activists, and locals searching for ways to cut water use and save what's left of this critical resource.

Stacks of golden hay.
Hay is a water-intensive crop to grow.Rafael Elias / Getty Images

An investigation from ProPublica and The Desert Sun found that one farming region in southern California, the Imperial Valley, was using more water than the rest of the entire state. The investigation also found that most of the water in the valley was being used by just 20 farming families.

Most of those farms were found to use the bulk of the water to grow just one crop — hay.

A small group in Imperial Valley soaks up billions of gallons

The winter growing season in Imperial Valley.halbergman/Getty Images

Hay is an especially water-thirsty crop because of its deep roots, long growing season, and dense vegetation.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported that Utah's 9,300 hay operations devoured most of the state's water resources.

For their investigation, reporters at ProPublica and The Desert Sun estimated the water consumption of farming families in the Imperial Valley by combining satellite data with records of who owned and farmed each field.

The reporters calculated that the family with the thirstiest farm used more than 84 billion gallons in 2022, which is more than the city of Las Vegas and about 3% of the Colorado River's entire flow to this region.

Aside from using exorbitant amounts of water compared with the rest of California, the report found the families were exporting a significant portion of the hay outside the valley. Critics told outlets that exporting that hay was basically the same as exporting billions of gallons of valuable water away from drought-ridden regions that need it most.

Where the hay goes

Hay is used to feed livestock.John Harper/Getty Images

Hay is mainly used to feed livestock, which The Breakthrough Institute reported to produce between 11% and 20% of greenhouse-gas emissions.

Yet, the incentive to keep growing water-thirsty hay to continue supporting greenhouse-gas-emitting livestock will probably continue if changes aren't made to the cost of water.

ProPublica reported that the Imperial Valley district got its water free from the US Bureau of Reclamation, which was then selling that water to farmers for cheap.

"Cheap water helps make growing hay in the Imperial Valley profitable," ProPublica and The Desert Sun wrote.

In an effort to reduce farms' water use, the Biden administration earlier this year allocated $125 million to help pay Colorado River farmers to stop farming and let their crops go dry.

But farmers previously told Business Insider it wasn't enough money to stop them from growing.

The federal government has created initiatives to assist farmers who are willing to curb their water use by using new irrigation techniques, such as using sprinklers instead of flooding fields.

Other states have begun dealing with this reckoning, too. Troy Waters, a fifth-generation Coloradan farmer, previously told BI that he was doing his best to conserve water to save the river but wished he saw similar efforts in California.

"Gosh damn," he said, "independent farmers now are having to start thinking politically."

Read the original article on Business Insider